Online Exaggerations

Financial services firms often tout their Web offerings, but execs admit in a study that they have a way to go to measure up to clients' expectations. The rhetoric about exemplary online services in the financial community is giving way to real assessments of Web-based offerings. And among a group of bank and brokerage execs, most are willing to admit their sites are imperfect. According to a March

Financial services firms often tout their Web offerings, but execs admit in a study that they have a way to go to measure up to clients' expectations.

The rhetoric about exemplary online services in the financial community is giving way to real assessments of Web-based offerings. And among a group of bank and brokerage execs, most are willing to admit their sites are imperfect.

According to a March report from Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research, Web execs believe that usability, customer service and personalization are the three most important elements of their sites, yet most say the sites don't meet customer expectations in these areas.

Forrester interviewed 30 executives responsible for Web strategy and found that few are satisfied with what they offer.

The respondents acknowledge they have work to do in the key areas. “Usability is one of the most important areas we have to work on,” says a bank exec.

“Customer service is a huge deal, and as more users come online it will be a bigger deal,” a brokerage respondent says.

“Personalization is very important because when you … offer [a client] advice that pertains to him, that is real customer service,” says a bank exec. “But we can't do that yet.”

To compare the execs' assessments of their sites to clients' opinions, Forrester conducted a separate survey of 2,642 online customers. The findings? Customers are not wowed. They issue average ratings for firms' online offerings — 3.26 overall, with 3 being meets expectations, 1 being much worse than expected and 5 being much better than expected.

“Barely meeting the expectations of current online customers is a warning sign for firms,” the report says.

Where Are the Gaps?

Most sites have similar problems. First, overwhelming content and scattered tools confound clients. “The majority of brokerage customers … gain little from complex technical analyst tools and analyst reports,” the report states. Users “are left stranded if they only want to figure out how their account has done compared with the market.”

A second problem is isolation. Some sites require different logins for account access and bill payment. Corporate barriers keep users from accessing all holdings within a single firm. For instance, Fidelity mutual fund owners who also have 401(k) investments must use separate sites to manage both accounts, the report states.

Third, spotty customer service is delivered through weak “frequently asked questions” sections and generic e-mail forms that don't satisfy many clients, the report states.

When asked what's keeping firms from making improvements, most respondents cite channel integration woes, a lack of resources and difficulty understanding customer needs. Says one brokerage exec, “We're struggling to figure out what our customers want. What technologies will they use? How can we keep our products ahead of their needs?”

What's Next?

Forrester concludes that today's users are self-directed early adopters of online finance. They are willing to stumble through fragmented sites. But larger numbers of future customers will not be so forgiving.

Researchers say firms that want to take their sites to the next level will blend three things:

  1. Contextual guidance and advice: Sites will recommend tools and content to guide specific users to make smart financial decisions.

  2. Intelligent transactions: Sites will drive usage by making transactions simple and efficient.

  3. Pre-emptive support: Sites will win customers over by answering questions before the user asks.

Registered Representative welcomes your comments on this story. Contact Managing Editor Janis Samaripa at [email protected] or call our editorial department at 800/621-0720.

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